Bay Area Birthday Parties: Where to Go
When You’re On A Budget
By Kathy Chin Leong

Without skimping on fun, anyone can host a birthday party on a shoestring budget. San Francisco, the East Bay, and South Bay in particular, are full of only-found-here locations that can make the day special. A day at Great America, tour of SBC Park and a baseball game or a private party at the Oakland Chabot Space and Science Center are experiences unique to Bay Area families.

Key point to remember: this is your child’s birthday, not yours. Even if you have creative and steller ideas, if your little one prefers something simple with a few friends or to do something only with family members, follow her lead. Every kid’s temperment is different; some children love to have lots of guests while others prefer a handful of close buddies to be on hand. Do not overwhelm your child or feel like you have to spend a ton of money in order to give the best.


- Thifty parties are the most fun because a budget forces you to be creative with what you’ve got. The key here is to find a spot that is free, free, free or cheap, cheap, cheap.

A few places to consider are public parks – find ones with age-appropriate play structures that are relatively safe. In the summer, locate a local pool with plenty of lifeguards and have those handy parents come along as guests.
And as you plan, consider your guests’ abilities and comfort levels If your child loves to ice skate but her friends hate it, maybe she can choose a different activity or mainly choose to do this as a family birthday outing.

Zoos are relatively inexpensive as well. The San Francisco Zoo charges $11 per adult and $5 for each child, ages 3-11, and $8 for 12-17. The Oakland Zoo admits adults for $9 and kids $5.50 for ages 2-14.
Museums and aquariums often feature a free admission day. You can take kids to the Steinhart Aquarium for free the first Wednesday of each month.The same goes for the Exploratorium , also in San Francisco. The new deYoung Museum is also complimentary for all visitors the first Tuesday of every month. It is also free to all kids 12 and under daily. Coordinate your free museum days with school breaks or holidays, and you’ll save a bundle.


: For parties with a bigger budget of $100 and more, parents have plenty of latitude. According to San Francisco mom, Julie Pitta, certain public playgrounds in San Francisco have nice club houses with refrigerators for storing food and room for serving cake. "The West Portal playground," she says, "has a gourmet kitchen, cafeteria tables, chairs, and plenty of room for indoor games. It has a grassy playing field or outdoor games, sandbox, and play apparatus."

The West Portal Clubhouse , according to SF Parks and Rec assistant Mike Montegue, runs $198.50 for a two hour block only on Sundays. Other popular parks with roomy clubhouses in San Francisco include Midtown Terrance, Douglas Park (3 hours for $156.30), and Cow Hollow (3 hours for $133). Do check out the parks and clubhouse facilities before you book, for each is different in size and scope.

For simplicity’s sake, thank goodness there are other places will do host a party for you by offering the location, activities, and sometimes, food. Science and children’s museums often offer party packages.

For instance, the Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland, offers a set of birthday packages from $165 on up. For the bottom rung package, hosts can invite up to 15 guests who get to enjoy the museum and have party room access. The $250 Mars Mission party provides a one hour simulated space mission to guests and a video of the mission featuring the guest of honor and his friends. A $300 Solar Car Challenge, enagles up to 15 guest to guilt and race Lego solar-powered cars and enjoy a planetarium show.

And over in Redwood City, at the Cosmo Party zone, up to 25 guests can have fun playing at the indoor bounce house, arcade and foosball, and other fun-filled action activities. Cost? Starting party package prices run $225.
If you are stumped for ideas, consider these venues:

  • Lasertag- Laserquest, Mountain View  
  • Rock climbing gyms – Planet Granite, Belmont; Berkeley IronWorks , Berkeley  
  • Water parks – Raging Waters , San Jose. 
  • Indoor soccer – World Cup Indoor Soccer Arena, South San Francisco  
  • Ice skating, bowling, slot cars 
  • Factory tours- Mrs. Grossman’s Sticker Factory , Petaluma; Basic Brown Bear Factory, San Francisco.

For $179 to $200 per hour, Ms. Susannah Simmons, owner of Every Day’s Bright in Pacifica will come to the location of your choice and dress in the character of your child’s choice. Lately, says Simmons, favorites include Dora the Explorer. According to Simmons, character parties are best for kids ages three to six, and beyond that she says that the bar must be raised significantly higher. "I did a party last week, and when I did Dora, the older kids were not into it. When they are seven or eight, you have to earn their respect and that’s when I focus on doing magic tricks."

The quintessial pony party is still in vogue, for what child doesn’t love animals? When my son was two, we hosted a pony party in the park and scheduled two hours with a single pony and his handler. Each child arrived dressed in western clothing, and goodies were later handed out inside a tied red bandana.

You can go to Pastorino Farms in Half Moon Bay to do the pony rides there, as well as a number of other family-friendly farms and horse stables in the same area, all within a few minutes of one another. Pastorino offers birthday packages with two hour time slots ranging from $200 to $600. At the $600 level, you get everything-train rides, petting zoo, hay rides, jump houses and decorations, goodie bags, face-painting, and cake to boot.


Depending on what you want to do, expensive treats include dressing up and going to a stage production, special show, or professional sporting event. Amusement parks such as Great America or Six Flags Marine World run pproximately $50 per child. Water parks such as Raging Waters, San Jose, cost $30 per child.
After getting buy-in from daughter Lauren, the Salineros of Mountain View took a vanload of friends in the decorated "birthday bus" and set out for a day at Bonfante Gardens in Gilroy. Cost this season will be $28.99 for kids 6 and under and $38.99 for kids and daults ages 7 to 64. Right now the park is open on weekends and then daily starting June 3.

Also popular are hotel overnighters. At the Embassy Suites in Santa Clara and Milpitas, expect to pay at least $130 and up per room. This hotel chain is popular for its cooked-to-order breakfast, evening snack time, and also its indoor pool.


When all is said and done, remember that you are celebrating your child, not the event itself. A party should reflect the child’s wishes. When it was time for Becca Werner of Sunnyvale to turn seven, her main desire was to have her friends donate toys to the underprivileged instead of giving her gifts. "It was entirely her idea," says mom Janet Werner. "And when she turned 9 she asked her friends to donate pencils, crayons and notepads to children in Peru. Everyone got into it, and the people were so generous."

The guests have been so excited, she adds. "After all, we have so much, and we don’t need more. Becca plans to do this every other year for her birthday."


* - Bonfante Gardens, Gilroy
* - Pastorinos Farm, Half Moon Bay
* - Great America amusement park, Santa Clara
* - San Francisco Zoo
* - Oakland Zoo
* - Chabor Space and Science Center, Oakland
* - Raging Waters water park, San Jose
* - Mrs.Grossman’s Stickers factory, Petaluma
* - Six Flags Marine World, Vallejo
* - Laserquest laser tag, Mountain View
* - Planet Granite, Belmont and Santa Clara
* - Basic Brown Bear Factory, San Francisco
* - deYoung Museum, San Francisco
* - Cosmo Party Zone, Redwood City

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